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Mr Seel's Garden

Concerns such as food miles, climate change and unhealthy lifestyles mean that local food-growing initiatives are becoming increasingly popular. But how do you make them work in a city? Memories of Mr Seel’s Garden, an AHRC-funded project funded through Connected Communities, is delving into the history of local food production in Liverpool to find out.

‘If you want to learn about food sustainability, one way of getting ideas and being inspired is by researching your area to see how people used to get their food,’ explains project lead Dr Michelle Bastian of the University of Edinburgh. ‘Finding out about the past can help us think about different possibilities for the future.’

So who was Mr Seel? The project’s name comes from a set of plaques next to an inner city Tesco Superstore, detailing the site’s history as market gardens owned by 18th century merchant Thomas Seel. ‘There’s something powerful about the juxtaposition of these different ways of getting food in different times and when this funding came up I thought it was a great premise to organise a project around,’ says Dr Bastian.

But she is quick to point out that the project is not about nostalgia – far from being an avuncular figure handing out fresh cabbages, Mr Seel was one of the city’s biggest slave traders.

Dr Bastian is one of a group of academics drawn from Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh who are working with two community groups, Friends of Everton Park and Friends of Sudley Estate, and the local branch of the Transition Movement, which promotes community solutions to climate change and resource depletion. The aim of the year-long project is to equip the groups with skills in research, archiving and mapping so they can follow their own interests. Work has included sessions on collecting oral histories, accessing archives at local museums and Liverpool University, and building an online map showing their findings.

The research has revealed that urban agriculture is not a new idea. In the 1870s there was a call for dairy farmers to move into Liverpool as milk brought by rail from the countryside soon soured. By the end of the 19th century, Liverpool was home to 4,000 head of cattle and there were many micro-dairies, some surviving into the middle of the last century. Residents interviewed during the collection of the oral histories shared childhood memories of cows being driven through the city streets.

Current ideas such as ‘patchwork farms’, where small areas of cultivation are spread out through a city, also have their roots in the past. Despite the high-density housing a surprising amount of produce was grown in the city. ‘You could argue that Liverpool already was a patchwork farm,’ says Dr Bastian. ‘It’s part of a recurring cycle and there’s a history to these ways of doing things that we can learn from.’

The project’s potential to inspire local food production has captured the attention of the Liverpool Primary Care Trust. As growing schemes promote physical activity, community cohesion and better diets, they fit well with the Trust’s targets to improve health and wellbeing. Everton Park is a green space at the heart of an area with a long and eventful history, from a mention in the Doomsday Book to a controversial slum clearance in the 1960s. Everton is also one of the most deprived areas of Liverpool. Sarah Dewar, sustainability sector lead at the PCT, who is a partner on the project, says: ‘The historical perspective is something that local people identify with really strongly. We’ve been working with the Friends of Everton Park looking at how growing projects can be revived within the park, and there’s now a heritage walking trail with local people acting as guides. Work from Mr Seel’s Garden will feed into all those developments over the next few years.’

In another area of Liverpool, a Friends of Sudley Estate initiative to bring a derelict kitchen garden back into production is already seeing benefits from involvement with the project. Sudley house, a Victorian merchant’s home bequeathed to the city, is open to the public as a gallery but all that remains of the garden is an ivy-covered wall on three sides. It is of historical interest as an example of a ‘hot wall’ with fireplaces built into the brickwork to heat the garden.

Linking with Memories of Mr Seel’s Garden has helped get more people involved, says group member Frances Downie. ‘It’s been snowballing. People know about the Mr Seel project and it cuts across lots of different interest groups – history, the site itself, food, the green agenda – it speaks to all of them so the word is going out in a very diverse way. One of the things that helped get people involved was meeting the academics. They’re fantastic communicators and really interested in showing people how they could get to grips with the research. It has also brought the group and the potential of this land to the attention of the City Council. We’re now in negotiation for a lease on a peppercorn rent and that means that we’ll be able to get funding to install security on the site before we start work.’

And researching the garden’s history has helped the group consider how they want to develop the site. ‘The consensus from a well-attended consultation meeting was that we don’t want it to be a replica of the original garden,’ she adds. ‘The heated wall was the cutting-edge technology of its time and we’re thinking about how to translate this into the present and find a model that helps it be sustainable in financial and management terms. Should we have solar panels or a windmill so it’s generating electricity as well as growing vegetables?’ The group is planning to run a design competition for students, and hopes that the garden will form the basis of school projects.

It’s a perfect example of what the Mr Seel project is all about, says Dr Bastian. ‘It’s about reconnecting a lost past with the future, and connecting communities up in richer, more diverse ways.’

Further information from the Mr Seel's Garden website.

Further information on Connected Communities on the Connected Communities webpage.

Feature by Caroline Roberts

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